“Know that I am happy dead than being alive.”
The reiteration of these lines from Rohith Vemula’s searing letter is an attempt at unveiling the dark reality of our society and its manifestation in educational institutions. It clearly highlights how caste acts as a barrier to obtaining quality education and even the top-ranked institutions set their facades of being inclusive in nature. These supposedly progressive institutes, in fact, often harbour and encourage discrimination, in all its subtleties.
Caste has an amorphous nature in the globalised society. Not only does caste pertains its basic structure of discrimination, but it also conveniently morphs itself, adjusting to the changes brought in by urbanisation and other modern aspects of the society. In the spaces of education, casteism is institutionalised, leading to various tragic cases of death by suicide of marginalised students. What is always overlooked in these traumatic events is the cultural and social nuances that promote such acts. In an atmosphere embedded in anti-reservation sentiments and caste biases, it becomes very difficult for marginalised students to exist freely, let alone voice their grievances. For the Indian society is rooted in such hypocrisy that it can show solidarity with the victims of racial discrimination outside the country, but fail to take a good look in the mirror. Apparently, in these modern spaces ‘caste does not exist anymore’, it is seen as a thing of the past.
But where is all of this coming from? Go to the students who received their JEE results or got the cut off lists of central universities and see how they blame reservation and indirectly the students who avail these reservations, marking them as a hindrance in their admission process. The unavailability of awareness at the school level itself gives rise to the anti-reservation sentiments among the children of privileged castes.
The constant spoon-feeding of casteism in their families fills that vacuum of social awareness. And this very seed of hatred accompanies them to these institutions. Here, they get all sorts of education and skills required for excelling in their particular field, but the lack in social awareness persists. This lack often results in the free use of casteist slurs in casual conversations, without even reflecting on the consequences, the affect it might have on the other. The other side, which is marginalised, both socially and literally (by the casteist remarks), does not always succeed in getting through the stigma which is casually thrown at them.
Even the administration only provides a lip-service to the students. When asked to probe into the recurrent deaths, the authorities either completely shun the possibility of the culture of caste-based discrimination among students and faculty or they conjure up a new angle altogether. For example, in the case of Rohith Vemula, the issue at hand, that of the toxic culture in universities that enabled deaths by suicide, was completely brushed under the carpet and the focus was turned on Vemula’s caste, claiming he was not a Dalit in the first place. Even though the National Commission for Scheduled Caste (NCSC) discredited the false allegations on Vemula’s caste, the question that lingers on is— what was the need to raise this issue and not the discrimination faced by Vemula, the deliberate attack by the institution on his survival and being by suspending his fellowship and compelling him to live in a tent on the campus? While the dean reclaimed his post and even received an award, Vemula’s mother still fights for the injustice meted out on her son.
Vemula was not the first one, prior to him, in 2008, a PhD scholar Senthil Kumar died by suicide which was linked to caste abuse, in the same university. In fact, according to an article in the EPW, 12 Dalit students from the University of Hyderabad had taken their own lives since the 1970s. In a report, before Darshan Solanki’s death in 2023, there have been more than 40 cases of Dalit students dying by suicide in major academic institutions in the last decade. From casteist culture pervading these spaces to dysfunctional SC/ST cells, everything contributes to these tragic suicides, making them not suicides but ‘institutional murders’. Payal Tadvi, a doctor, who belonged to the Bhil tribal community, was constantly harassed by her seniors by casteist insults and by keeping her away from important jobs. What follows is an attack on the dignity, the very being of the person. Where and who are the counsellors and therapists for these students who face humiliation because of their very identity?
In most of the cases, the common notion that prevails is that of merit and the student’s inability to handle pressure. The whole notion of merit, especially in the Indian society which is gripped in such biases, becomes a problematic one. Reservation is about representation, representation of those who have been obliterated from the societal fold and oppressed for centuries. People often tend to confuse reservation with poverty elevation schemes. And with the introduction of the EWS quota, this gets further complicated. People see economic capital, but fail to (deliberately so) recognise the social and cultural capital. When a person has the privilege of a surname which automatically grants them a special place in the society, then that person has a certain capital which another person, who is afraid to use their surname so as to avoid discrimination and humiliation, does not have. This capital allows the former to derive benefits from those who share the same surname or belong to the privileged caste, who are already in the power positions, owing to the centuries of hierarchical divisions. Reservation strives towards creating a levelled ground for a social as well as cultural mobility of those who get discriminated against on the basis of their caste.
There is another type of capital which is also at work here, in the language of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, this capital is called the ‘cultural capital’. Cultural capital, is an accumulation of symbolic elements of authority and power like tastes, material possessions, mannerisms, qualifications etc. that helps determine a person’s place in society. In the Indian context, it is visibly present but is often ignored and kept safely under the veil of ‘merit’. Picture this. One student has had a proper education in a good school, comes from an educated family, and has access to good books and other resources from an early age. The other student is a first-generation learner from a marginalised community and gets admitted to a premiere institution, surviving all the social, cultural and economic hardships. How can the same starting line be fixed for both when the former is, in reality, far ahead from the latter? This conflicted starting line is often confused as ‘merit’ in our society.
The prejudices of the society prevent the entrance of the marginalised, maintaining its exclusivity at each step. With Darshan Solanki’s suicide, the institutional apathy has come to light. In a report by the New Indian Express, the Ambedkar Periyar Phule Study Circle (APPSC) members raised the question of absence of an inclusive body of counsellors that Dalit students can approach. Alleging the suicide as an ‘institutional murder’, and rightly so, an APPSC cell member asked a very significant question, “When counsellors themselves are against reservation, how can you expect a Dalit student to turn to them?” This question not only raises the issue of counselling bias, but also the issue of minimal representation. With numerous prejudices standing against the marginalised, when reservation provides the scope of representation, society does not seem to tolerate it. From RTIs filed by APPSC students in IIT Bombay, it has become apparent that almost 90 per cent of the faculty belongs to the privileged caste. Reservation policies are also not being followed duly during the recruitment process. In 2021, as a report states, in an institute in Allahabad, the selection panel found none of the sixteen OBC candidates suitable for the position of assistant professor and on similar grounds the post for associate professor was also left vacant.
An alumnus of an esteemed university spoke to The Wire about his encounter with students from the same batch as Ayush Ashna and Anil Kumar, the two Dalit students from IIT Delhi who died by suicide this year. The students highlighted that the use of casteist slurs, deliberately failing students, and using rank to identify caste, are common phenomena. Even in a top-ranked university like JNU, known for its progressiveness, casteism lurks in the institutional practice of discriminating PhD applicants from marginalised categories by giving them low marks in interviews even though they have scored high marks in written exams. The controversial aspect is that all these candidates belong to SC, ST, OBC, and Muslim categories. This is the culture of these prestigious universities that go unnoticed under the garb of their progressiveness.
In India, where caste forms the basis of almost everything, one cannot view class in isolation. Class and caste are intertwined. Even if a person moves up the ladder of class, the marker of caste doesn’t seem to disappear. Questioning the economic capital of the marginalised is also a type of casteism that people fail to address. The oppressor caste finds it difficult to digest the economic mobility of Dalits, it causes them severe discomfort that a community, which has been historically, socially, and culturally excluded is now entering into their exclusive spaces. As a result, they bring in all the forces to avoid such an occurrence. There is a significant lack of a deeper understanding and sensitivity towards these issues of social emancipation and justice. Educational institutions should work towards acceptance, understanding, and broadening of view, not towards casteism and exclusivity. Education should emancipate, not constrict the mind.
As Babasaheb Ambedkar observes in Annihilation of Caste, “Caste is a notion, it is a state of the mind. The destruction of caste does not therefore mean the destruction of a physical barrier. It means a notional change.”
About the author
Saundarya is a Junior Research Fellow, pursuing M.Phil. in English from the University of Delhi. She researches Dalit literature and culture and explores the politics of marginal literature and its representation. She has an M.A. in English from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.
In her spare time, she experiments with her brush and paints anything and everything.